Many historians trace the apocalyptic world view back to the Persian prophet
Zoroaster, who spoke of a cosmic battle between good and evil ending in
a new, perfect world for humanity. The Zoroastrian tradition survives today in
Iran and as the basis of Parsiism in India.
BCE to 586 BCE
Book of Ezekiel, one of the major prophetical books of the Old Testament, is written in response to the invasion and capture of
Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and the subsequent exile of the
Jews to Babylon. The Book of Ezekiel foretells the return of the Jews to their
homeland and the violent destruction of future enemies. The book ends with
God's admonition to the Jews reminding them that their suffering and exile
resulted from their lack of faith and trespassing against Him, but foretells
that after the return to the homeland, proper worship will resume and God will
no longer turn away from them.
inspired by the sack of Babylon by Xerxes, the Book of Isaiah is a prime
example of the pre-apocalyptic Jewish prophetic tradition. The prophets were
professionals who spoke to contemporary problems through poetry, often
including a small amount of future prediction to enhance their authority. With
its cosmic symbolism and introduction of the resurrection of the dead, Isaiah
reveals important elements of the apocalyptic world view falling into place.
series of books collectively called First Enoch, written during a period
when the Jews were under the rule of the Greek Empire, see a further shift from
the ancient prophetic tradition to a new apocalyptic tradition. The books take
as their subject Enoch, the seventh patriarch of the Book of Genesis who, as a
visionary, was reputed to have received secret knowledge from God. Many of the
standard elements of the distinct literary genre of Jewish apocalyotic first
emerge in these texts. The "Book of Watchers" provides the first example of the
judgment of the dead in the Jewish tradition; the distinctively historical
"Apocalypse of Weeks" is the first to envisage the end of the world in a
literal sense. Within the series, the perspective shifts from the cosmic to the
The Book of Daniel is written as a product of the Jewish Maccabean revolt
agaisnst persecution by the Syro-Greek dynasty of the Seleucids. After the New
Testament Book of Revelation, it is the scripture most often studied and cited
by contemporary prophecy believers. Daniel's dream holds that Israel will inherit "the greatness of the kingdom under the whole
heaven" when God has overthrown the last of the four evil kingdoms, first represented by four metals, then by four beasts. In many
ways, Daniel represents the emergence of revolutionary eschatology. In it, the
world is dominated by an evil power, and the suffering of its victims--the
intended audience--becomes increasingly intolerable. But at some appointed time
the saints of God will rise up and overthrow the oppressor, and the sufferers
will inherit the earth.
With the capture of Jerusalem, the Romans make Judea an outpost of their
empire. Their oppressive rule makes Rome the locus of evil in apocalyptic
literature until the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century
Jesus Christ is born in the area of Nazareth.
is put to death by Roman officials. His followers--the first
Christians--would use an apocalyptic framework to make sense of this
unthinkable development, casting him in the role of Messiah and reasoning that
he would return soon to finish his work.
Jewish rebellion against Rome ends in failure with the sacking of
Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.|
The Gospel of Mark is believed to have been written around this time. It
includes the "Little Apocalypse" (Mark 13), Jesus' eschatological
discourse to his disciples, in which he both fueled expectations of an imminent
end ("This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled") and
cautioned against date speculation ("But of that day and hour knoweth no man
... but my Father only.").
Essene movement reaches its peak. The 1947 discovery of their sacred
library, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, would reveal much about this
highly apocalyptic Jewish sect. The Essenes called themselves the "sons of
light," in opposition to the Jewish majority, or "sons of darkness." In texts
like the so-called "War Scroll," they essentially recast the history of Israel
in terms of a cosmic war between good and evil. Highly critical of all
outsiders, the Essenes looked forward to the day of judgment, when they
expected God to send an army to destroy their enemies. The Essenes demonstrate
that the early Christians were but one of many Jewish sects animated by
Biblical scholars believe that around this time the Revelation of John, or the
Book of Revelation was written. Destined to become the only apocalypse in
the New Testament and the final Book of the Christian Bible, Revelation is the
paramount source for Christian prophecy believers. Scholars are skeptical of
the claim, made by those who argued for its inclusion in the canon, that the
author is the same man who wrote the Gospel of John. Whatever its authorship,
Revelation has had tremendous influence on our culture and history, not only
motivating millions of believers but contributing vivid images and phrases to
popular culture, from the "four horsemen of the Apocalypse" to the "mark of the
Borrowing much of its imagery from the Book of Daniel, Revelation is fairly
typical of the revolutionary eschatology of the time. Addressing "the scattered
Christians of Asia Minor in their hour of affliction," the author describes in
vivid detail the means through which God will save his people from their
suffering at the hands of Satan. "God shall wipe away all tears from their
eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying; neither
shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away."
Failure of the second Jewish revolt against Rome. After this, Jewish leaders
condemned the apocalyptic genre as futile and dangerous, and apocalypticism
began to fade from mainstream Judaism. Although a few texts, like the Book of
Daniel, remained popular, rabbis started shying away from openly apocalyptic
readings and instead focused on interpreting and following the Torah.
Relief showing the revolt against Rome
fiercely ascetic movement arises in Phrygia around a man named Montanus,
who declares himself the incarnation of the Holy Ghost. Ecstatics gather around
him, given to visionary experiences which they believe are of divine origin and
signal the imminent coming of the God's Kingdom. They literally expect the New
Jerusalem to descend from the heavens onto Phrygiam soil. |
Early Christian fathers were alarmed to see Montanist sects spring up across
Asia Minor, Africa, Rome and Gaul. Even Tertullian, the most famous theologian
in the West at the time, joined the movement. Although they were eventually
able to contain it, Montanism warned many in the Church of the dangers posed by
Julius Africanus, a Roman official and early Christian scholar, writes his
Chronografiai, the first universal chronology written from
a Christian perspective. It calls for the Second Coming of Christ in the year
500, based on five thousand years of history from creation to the Jewish
Babylonian exile, plus another thousand since. Placing "the End" six thousand
years after creation--the date of which varied widely--became the most common
form of end-time dating in the Christian west.
Emperor Constantine rescinds the persecution of Christians, and is
eventually baptized himself before his death in 337. Under his reign,
Christianity went from a persecuted minority to a favored cult within the Roman
Empire. The end of persecution led to a temporary decrease in the appeal of
apocalypticism, although continued alienation and disruptions would ensure its
this time, the first of the Christian Sibylline Oracles is written. The
Christian Sybillines drew heavily on the earlier Jewish Sybillines, which were
intended to convert pagans to Judaism through the inspired words of a
prophetess. Written after the death of Constantine, the Christian Sybillines
attached great eschatological significance to the figure of the Roman Emperor.
The great popularity of the Sybillines up to and through the Middle Ages
demonstrated that popular millennialism continued to flourish at all levels of
society, particularly among the poor. Although uncanonial and unorthodox, the
Sybillines had enormous influence--after the Bible, they were among the most
influential writings in Medieval Europe.
councils of the Christian Church agree to include the Revelation to John in the
canon, where it sits portentously as the final Book of the Bible. Key to
its inclusion is the acceptance of John the Apostle as its author.
falls to the Visigoths. Because Church fathers had shifted away from
apocalyptic thinking in the previous century, the fall of the now-Christianized
Roman Empire did not inspire the wave of apocalypticism one might expect.
St. Augustine finishes his great work The City of God, which caps
the Church's ongoing shift away from literal apocalypticism. Instead, Augustine
approaches the Millennium allegorically, as a spiritual state collectively
entered by the Church at Pentecost, and as a matter for individuals rather than
all of mankind. Although preserving the concept of a communal last judgment in
the distant future, he interprets the struggle depicted in Revelation as a
metaphor for the struggle faced by individual souls here and now. Augustine
moved the Catholic Church--now a powerful institution trying to maintain the
status quo--essentially out of the apocalypse business, or at least away from
literal readings of prophecy.
Death of the prophet Muhammad. Ever since he had received his first visions in
610, the new religion of Islam had grown remarkably quickly. By 622, Islam had
so disturbed the authorities in Mecca that Muhammad and his followers were
forced to flee in the Hijra to Medina. But they returned just seven years later
and captured Mecca. Over the next 100 years, Muslim armies would conquer most
of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain.
the Dome of the Rock, Islamic mosque built 691 in Jerusalem
The apocalyptic significance of the rise of Islam is twofold. Growing partly
out of Judeo-Christian monotheism, Islam quickly developed its own rich
apocalyptic tradition. And its formidable empire--which included control of
Jerusalem--put it on a collision course with Christianity, which would cast
Muslims in the role of the Antichrist for centuries to come.
"Letter on the Antichrist" written around this time. This French
monk's description of the Antichrist is widely translated and disseminated
throughout Europe, and would be influential for centuries. In particular, Adso
helps establish the notion of the "Last World Emperor," one who would unite
Christianity, defeat the Muslims, and lay down his crown in Jerusalem, paving
the way for Christ's return.
of first Christian Millennium. Pope Sylvester presides over a dramatic
midnight mass at St. Peter's Basilica, as pilgrims tremble in anticipation of
the end of the world. But was there a general millennial hysteria? Historians
have long disagreed.
splits Christianity in two, with the western Church based in Rome and the
eastern or Byzantine Church in Constantinople. Across the divide, each side
would use apocalyptic rhetoric against the other for centuries.
The First Crusade is launched by Pope Urban II. His goal is to aid Byzantine
Christians in driving the Seldjuk Turks from Asia Minor, in the (futile) hope
that the eastern Church would acknowledge the supremacy of Rome and Christendom
would be united.|
The poor were particularly susceptible to the Pope's call for an army. Most of
those who joined the Crusade perished on the long journey across Europe. Those
whose survived the trip were known as "Tafurs." Stories describe them as
barefoot, wearing sackcloth, covered in sores and filth, living on roots and
grass and sometimes the roasted corpses of their enemies. Too poor to afford
swords, they fought with clubs, pointed stick, knives, shovels, and hoes. The
Muslims were said to have been terrified of the Tafurs, and their own leaders
unable to control them. As they move across Europe, they attack and kill Jews
in large numbers, believing them enemies of Christianity.
More on the Crusades.
years into their quest, the Crusaders lay siege to Jerusalem, then
overwhelm and slaughter the Muslims there. Word that the Holy Land has been
recaptured spreads throughout western Europe, generating enthusiasm for further
Crusades. Holding on to the weak crusader states they set up on the route to
Jerusalem would prove difficult, however, over the coming decades.
Death of Hildegard of Bingen, an aristocratic German abbess who was one of the
few women to make an important contribution to apocalyptic theology in the
Middle Ages. In 1151 she completed her masterpiece, the Scivias, a
beautifully illustrated volume which included a vision of the last times heavy
with animal imagery and with a graphic description of the Antichrist.
Italian monk Joachim of Fiore receives the inspiration for his eschatological
teachings, which become among the most influential of the Middle Ages. Joachim
makes an important departure from the Augustinian tradition by re-emphasizing
the predictive value of scripture, particularly Revelation. Joachim sees
history as an ascent through three successive stages: the Age of the Father or
the Law; the Age of the Son or of the Gospel; and Age of the Spirit. He
believed the world was at the end of the Age of Christ, and predicted that the
wondrous Age of the Spirit would begin between 1200 and 1260.|
Apart from his emphasis on spiritualism, Joachim's three-stage view of history
would influence future thinkers such as Hegel, Marx and Hitler. Unfortunately,
his casting of Jews as Antichrist also contributed to anti-semitism.
by the loss of Jerusalem to Muslims led by the Egyptian Saladin in 1187, Pope
Gregory VIII launches the Third Crusade. Richard the Lionhearted stops
in Messina to confer with the famous Joachim of Fiore, who wrongly predicts
that he would drive the Antichrist Saladin from Jerusalem.
at least in part to Joachim's predictions, this is a year of heightened
apocalyptic expectations throughout Europe. Stories of earthquakes and
other calamities abound, and preparations for the end accelerate. As historian
Norman Cohn has written, "millenarian expectations took on a more desperate and
hysterical quality" in 1260. One expression of this is the self-flagellation
movement which catches on in Europe, beginning in monastic communities and
spreading rapidly throughout Latin Christiandom. Flagellants hope that if they
punished themselves, God would forgo even greater punishment for their sins.
Some had even higher aspirations--perhaps their bleeding bodies, much like that
of Christ, could have redemptive value for all mankind.
Black Death reaches western Europe, with horrible consequences. It's
estimated that one-third of the population perishes. Jews are blamed for
poisoning the wells and are killed in large numbers. The plague and ensuing
chaos are commonly perceived as signs that the End is near, that Judgment is
English Peasant's Revolt demonstrates the potential for religious
apocalypticism to combine with social and economic unrest, with dramatic
results. Led by lower clergymen and "irregulars" like John Ball, the Revolt is
fueled by visions of the "Egalitarian Millennium." Historian Norman Cohn has
commented that the Revolt was "directed solely towards limited aims of a social
and political nature," but that it was seen by many as part of the "preordained
convulsions of the Last Days."
Taborite rebellion offers a good example of the way that apocalyptic
energies were often aimed at the Church itself, not just outsiders. The
Taborites, a radical wing of the Hussite movement, set up a utopian community
around Mt. Tabor in Bohemia. Taborite eschatology held that these were the Last
Days, and that the Church of Rome was the Whore of Babylon and the Pope the
Antichrist. The Taborites declined rapidly after their army was defeated by
more moderate Hussites (Utraquists) in 1434.
events of a single year in single country, Ferdinand and Isabella's Spain,
offer ample evidence of the power of apocalypticism:|
* The reconquest of Granada and expelling of the Moors marks the successful end
of the long Christian holy war against the Muslims.
* Fueled by apocalyptic rhetoric, the ongoing Spanish Inquisition increases
anti-semitism, leading to the mass expulsion of Jews from the country.
* Christopher Columbus, sailing under the Spanish flag, discovers the
New World. A great believer in prophecy, Columbus was actually trying to find a
"back door" to the Middle East through which Christians might recapture
Jerusalem and usher in the Last Days.